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WRTV's first Latino on-air personality recalls opportunities and conflicting hardships 

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Posted at 5:39 PM, Sep 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-25 14:06:20-04

INDIANAPOLIS — When opportunity knocks, you have to be ready to answer.

That's quite literally what happened for Tom Alvarez.

It was 1972, when Alvarez learned about an opening to appear on "Opportunity Knocks," a WRTV program which aimed to connect viewers with jobs.

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His mentor, who served on an advisory committee for the station's former parent company, McGraw-Hill, told him about the rare chance.

Alvarez was immediately interested and invested.

Alvarez landed the job, making history as WRTV's first Latino on-air personality.

On the public-affairs show, he would point to the available job opportunities listed on a big board on the studio set and talk about the requirements and ways to apply.

Alvarez co-hosted "Opportunity Knocks" and eventually took advantage of a training program at WRTV that would broaden his skills in broadcasting and move him to the control room to direct newscasts, telethons and other special programming.

"If you can direct live TV, you can do anything," Alvarez said. "It's so true. I had to learn that. How to remain calm in crisis."

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For Alvarez, he really was handling a crisis.

He was holding on to a secret --- a double minority in the working world, enduring so much pressure -- not only as a Mexican-American, but also as a gay man.

"I felt the brunt of a lot of racism, sexism," Alvarez said. "At the time, I was in the closet. I'm a gay man. But back then, I felt I had to submerge all of that because I knew there would be a backlash."

Alvarez says he felt plenty of resentment because he was a minority.

"It's so interesting," Alvarez said. "Because the same backlash is still present for affirmative action. I would not have had a television career had it not been for affirmative action. That's just a fact."

Alvarez channeled his pressures to create content and harvest talent.

He produced several specials at WRTV, aiming to educate viewers on cultural diversity.

A point of pride for him is a documentary he produced about migrant workers.

Alvarez calls that production a tribute to his parents, who were migrant workers from the San Antonio, Texas area, who eventually settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, before Alvarez made moves to Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis.

As Alvarez directed productions in WRTV control rooms and created long-form pieces for air, he was also paying forward the opportunities afforded to him at WRTV.

He trained young people interested in broadcasting, who had applied to the same program Alvarez completed years earlier.

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"Many of them went on to great careers in L.A. and Chicago and New York," Alvarez said. "They way surpassed what I did in TV, so I feel really good about that."

Alvarez left WRTV in 1986 and moved on to other opportunities.

Today, among other things, he runs a successful theater company, called Magic Thread Cabaret.

It too focuses on diversity in the arts.

Several productions highlight the great black talents of the Harlem Renaissance and songs from Hispanic cultures.

Alvarez aims to hire and pay young Hoosier actors and singers from this area, who are looking for that break.

"Because you need a break," Alvarez said. "And someone did it for me. And that's the kind of promise I made to myself. It was just ironic considering the back story of how I arrived here that the show was called "Opportunity Knocks."

Alvarez recalls the ways WRTV helped him and the ways he helped WRTV.

"I tell people, I must come off sounding like Forrest Gump -- because I'm an actor; I am a producer; I am a model; I am a theater producer; a reviewer; a TV personality," Alvarez said. "I do all those things. But this is where it all started."